The mere presence of joker-faced Gina Gershon in a movie makes it campy. Maybe this is because her oversized lips don’t give her command of her own facial expressions, and she’s forced to play every scene with a snigger whether she means to or not. Perhaps wise to this, Gershon tends to choose material that profits from an air of ironic awareness, whether as a ruthless dancing-girl diva in 1995’s Showgirls, conniving ex-con Corky in the faintly subversive Bound, or her role in Prey for Rock & Roll, as Jacki, an aging frontwoman for a rock band going nowhere. Each of these films makes a somewhat fatuous social critique that is at odds with its own implausible story, not to mention the expectations of fun-seeking audiences. Gershon reliably deflates all pretensions without seeming to know that she’s doing it.
That said, most audiences will find Prey for Rock & Roll pretty campy without her help. The minute Gershon starts the voiceover, sounding a bit like she’s reciting from an old copy of Hit Parader at a poetry slam, and director Alex Steyermark starts quoting freely from the visual language of Whitesnake videos, you know that this is not an idiosyncratic or nuanced view on the often misrepresented rock scene, and that it instead reaffirms all the dopey notions that trying to make it as a rock star is a gritty adventure, steeped in an illicitly glamorous world of grit and transgression.
And this is a primary function of films like this: because they present unrefectively and take so seriously a “reality” patently distorted by ideology, they allow us to become aware of the preposterousness of our own fantasies, of seeing the ideology that fosters them while letting us indulge in those pleasures it enables at the same time.
Blissfully unaware of the stereotypes in which it trades or the mawkish clumsiness with which it tries to exercise our emotions, the film recounts in a narrative rush the tribulations of Jacki and her bandmates in Clam Dandy: butch lead guitarist Faith (Tank Girl Lori Petty, looking a lot like Viv from The Young Ones), puckish abuse-survivor drummer Sally (Shelly Cole), and alcoholic trust-fund-baby bassist Tracy (The Sopranos’ Drea De Matteo).
As the girls struggle on, the film refuses to serve up a single male character who remotely resembles a human being. Even Jacki’s love interest, the significantly named Animal (Marc Blucas), is a goggle-eyed lunatic who seems barely able to restrain his inherently male lust for violence. In this, writers Sheri Lovedog (adapting her play) and Robin Whitehouse make this movie world look as cartoonish as the offscreen one where all women are simply sex objects.
The indignities and the horrors inflicted on the bandmates by men are legion, including paternal abandonment, disrespect, exploitation, condescension, sexual abuse, and rape. Any one of these is awful to contemplate, but Prey for Rock & Roll is paced to make them feel like random petty annoyances, compressed and hurried, they start to seem insignificant. Though each new catastrophe is played for maximum pathos, the film’s tone often shifts abruptly and inexplicably, as it offers no connections between the serious of tragedies that befall them, breaking them up instead with rock-video like montages of the band’s writing or practicing or simply dealing with the tedium of everyday life. This lack of emotional continuity renders it impossible for audiences to get too preoccupied by the characters’ trauma.
In the end, this disengagement works to the movie’s benefit. Prey for Rock & Roll is absolutely ridiculous. We certainly don’t learn anything believable about what it’s like to try to make it in the music industry and we don’t understand any better the causes and consequences of what the characters are supposed to suffer. But, looked at as a kind of miscellany, the film offers a certain comprehensiveness, dramatizing a whole host of different fears and desires (from druggy decadence to lesbian sex to rock-star posing). And it offers a satisfying revenge-fantasy wrinkle in the implausible but poetically just punishments Jacki doles out to the chief male villains (she tattoos the word “RAPIST” on a perpetrator’s forehead, and urinates on an insulting contract offered her by the lascivious representative of a small record company). Realism would just get in the way here.
But the characters’ lack of emotional memory—they shrug off or forget whatever happens—makes them seem erratic, even schizophrenic. At times, these lapses can be quite funny, as in the scene in Jacki’s tattoo parlor where Animal explains how he beat his stepfather to death with a baseball bat after he found him raping his sister, and then, after a moment’s pause, he sheepishly asks Jacki out on a date. (Unfortunately, his sister is raped again before she has a chance to take him up on the offer).
At other times, such discontinuity is creepy. When Sally apparently overlooks the fact that her rape by the bassist’s boyfriend was a direct consequence of the bassist’s inebriated irresponsibility, and she continues to rock on with her as though nothing happened. Of course, that may be the Katie Roiphe-like lesson we’re supposed to take away, that women shouldn’t take being raped too seriously. Indeed, the pivotal scene comes after the rape: Sally and Jacki decide that the best thing she can do is go “pound the shit” out of her drums.
And so, playing rock music obliterates all feelings of shame, spite, or helplessness. Its apparently redemptive power underscores the women’s dogged pursuit of fame and justifies their retreat into a ghettoized subset of the society carefully demarcated by the plethora of tattoos and faded kitsch T-shirts. The film ends with a voiceover celebrating the alternative family provided by the band. Still, the punning title suggests an awareness of the simultaneous refuge and trap of rock and roll.
While the music does carve out a subculture in which gender roles can be subverted—where cock-rockers can be women and female bonding supplants male bonding—that subculture remains marginal, detached, ineffectual. As Jacki’s preoccupation with her age and her looks demonstrates, it’s at best a temporary distraction, contingent on how long the subculture itself will accept you; at worst, it’s a world with its own repressive strictures keeping you a stranger to yourself.
But Prey for Rock & Roll isn’t interested in such ambivalence; instead, it embraces that escapism it seems poised to critique, and serves up a vision of a utopian all-female community. Such communities have been a staple of “women’s entertainment” as long as there has been such a thing. (They date back as far as the 15th century, if you count Christine de Pizan’s feminist text, The Book of the City of the Ladies.) The film’s really not much different from Sarah Scott’s 1762 novel Millennium Hall, in which a number of women who explain their sufferings at the hands of the patriarchy, then retreat to a self- sufficient estate. The rock and roll fantasy the film presents as a shelter is pleasant enough. But it’s strange, to say the least, that rebellious and confrontational music winds up merely a soundtrack for a quietist dream of withdrawal. It just doesn’t seem very rock and roll in the end.